LONDON -- Europe's problems may yet spin us towards a depression, but at least they offer a sweet catharsis for "euroskeptics" -- those of us who have always thought the euro a misguided project.
Euroskeptics have been through it, both in Britain and elsewhere. The haughty laughter, the insults, the patronizing comments, like "little Englander," suggesting both stupidity and insularity. Despite the fact, or perhaps because, Margaret Thatcher was the biggest and most famous euroskeptic of the lot, "euroenthusiasts," among them Tony Blair, took every opportunity to suggest that our argument was based on emotion rather than reason.
In fact the reverse was true. Euroskeptics realized that it was crazy to have a single exchange rate and interest rate applied to somewhere as massive and diverse as the European Union. For unlike Americans we Europeans share no common loyalty to our Union. There is no sense of European nation, and therefore no intrinsic acceptance that our own countries within the Union should be prepared to accept economic hardship for the wider good. Quite the reverse; each country is in it precisely for what it can get out.
To ignore this self-evident reality was Europe's big mistake, even if it took more than a decade to show just how big. Simply, economic union requires political union. And you can't sustain that without the will of the people.
Ah yes, how inconvenient for the technocrats in Brussels and Strasbourg that we dastardly voters get in the way of their grand plans. Not that it's stopped them. If we give a non, nein, or nee to one of the many referenda on closer union, they merely tell us that we've chosen "the wrong answer," and shamelessly ask us to vote again. (Democracy has never been the EU's strong suit.)
Many American visitors to Europe quickly recognize this disconnect -- though often they're too polite to say so. They see a continent that is a joyous medley of languages, cultures, attitudes and beliefs. Spain is no more like Finland than India is like Iceland. Greece is as different from Germany as the US is from Mexico. Yet would the U.S. ever consider monetary union with its neighbor across the Rio Grande?
If the travails of the euro have taught us one thing (which euroskeptics instinctively knew anyway), it is that you cannot straightjacket hundreds of millions of people. You cannot change the speed or course of the giant, ponderous waves of humanity. They go at their own sweet pace.
Those in favor of the euro ignored this inconvenient reality. They ploughed on, elbowing past human sensibilities, denouncing those who objected. The result? Europe's biggest crisis since the Second World War.
Now that the euroskeptics have been proved right all along, one or two honorable opponents are eating humble pie. Even Jacques Delors, former European Commission President, one of the chief architects of the euro, and bête noire of British Conservatives, now admits that the euro was flawed from the start. We thank him for this belated candor.
And the editor of the Financial Times between 2001 and 2005, Andrew Gowers, has issued what amounts to a grovelling apology for getting the biggest economic issue of recent decades spectacularly wrong. He declared last month: "All of us paid too little attention to the arguments of those who opposed the project and worried about its viability." He's quite right about that, at least. Rather than arguing for the euro on its merits he and his colleagues all too often chose the lazy, insidious route of implying that euroskeptics were irrational and sentimental. Interpreting the motives of those opposed to the euro a decade ago, Philip Stephens, who is still the newspaper's chief political columnist, oozed condescendingly, "Immaturity is the kind explanation."
The best known early proposal for a "United States of Europe" was made in 1847 by the pacifist Victor Hugo, and when the European ideal took shape a century later it had at its heart a keen desire that the nations of this continent would never again go to war against each other. But more recently a less lofty ideal took hold: that Europe should unite in ever-closer union to compete on a global stage. Any instinctive reluctance by the peoples of Europe to accept this unity and live happily under one roof, rather than as neighbors, was trumped by theory-wielding economists in Brussels.
Now European leaders are poised to decide whether to forge fiscal as well as monetary union. If they do so, thereby saving the euro, the world will no doubt sigh with relief as short-term catastrophe is avoided.
Yet celebration might be premature. The drive towards ever-closer union has already caused one crisis. The next could be even worse.